A stricken South Dakota town will rebuild, but for whom? Tornado levels homes, tears apart community

Clinton promises aid

June 02, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SPENCER, S.D. -- There's no explaining the things fate chooses to spare.

The mutilated green shell that used to be the house of 86-year-old Marlys Muters was ankle deep in broken glass and mangled furniture yesterday, but just outside lay a musical Mother's Day card playing "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."

The two-story house of Ward and Gloria Satterlee, the minister and organist at the Nazarene Church, is now an eviscerated mound of splinters and shreds, but sticking out from the pile was a white sheaf of church music, a piece called "Alleluja!"

And though almost everything in Lucille Mone's house came crashing down around her, sitting serenely on the wall is a framed puzzle of a cool, green Irish countryside and a clock that is still telling time.

Mone, an 89-year-old woman who springs around on a wooden cane, was hoping yesterday to salvage one more thing: her husband James' false teeth.

"They were in a cup in the bathroom, and he was in bed and the storm blew him out of bed so bad, he couldn't find the floor and that's when he got hurt," said Mone, whose husband, 95, was still in the hospital with a broken shoulder and broken ribs. "They were Omaha teeth. You can't get them in South Dakota."

Two days after a ferocious tornado steam-rolled through the tiny hamlet of Spencer, people here were setting their minds on the simple things.

They almost had to. So much had been destroyed -- every business and all but a dozen or so houses -- that the 320 people living here did not know where to begin.

The twister carved a southeastern slash across South Dakota's corn, wheat and soybean territory Saturday night, but it hit hardest in Spencer, virtually destroying this mile-square community.

It struck so hard and fast that it fizzled the town's electricity before the tornado warning siren could sound.

Six people were killed and 150 others, half the population, were injured.

The dead were all older people. The youngest was Ron Selken, a 62-year-old retired concrete laborer.

Two women died in a home for the elderly on Main Street, the only paved road in town. A 93-year-old widow, Mildred Pugh, was crushed under the library's bookmobile trailer.

And Gloria Satterlee, 71, was yanked to her death as she and her husband were hurrying from the kitchen into the basement.

"I had her by the hand," her husband, Ward, 74, said yesterday, watching as relatives combed through the rubble of his house and came up with an old Bible. "She said, 'Just a minute, I want to get the dog.' I let go of her hand and that's the last I seen of her. I was pinned with some kitchen floor on top of me. I called to her about 10 or 20 times and never got an answer."

Yesterday, President Clinton designated Spencer as a federal disaster area and offered the community the full range of disaster-relief services, from temporary housing to rebuilding roads to small-business loans.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency said there was no way to estimate how much damage was done.

"Look around," said Richard Weiland, the regional director of the emergency agency.

"What can you count? It's all gone."

Standing on a cement slab that marked the remains of a shattered house, Gov. William J. Janklow insisted yesterday that the town would be rebuilt.

"You should have seen it when the pioneers got here," the governor said.

"We built a town here. We'll build another town. Will everybody live here? No. But a year from today we're going to have a town."

But residents were not so sure.

As Mone, who was born in Spencer, said: "There's nothing to come back to -- just my grave in the cemetery."

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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